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An artist biopic that swaggeringly busts the limitations of the well-worn subgenre, Acute Misfortune is one of the year’s most striking and accomplished directorial debuts. Well-established as a skilled character actor, Thomas M. Wright — best known for Jane Campion and Garth Davis’ TV miniseries Top of the Lake — steps behind the camera to adapt and expand Erik Jensen’s staccato, warmly received nonfiction tome about award-winning but self-destructive painter/conceptualist Adam Cullen, who died at 46 in 2012. Of obvious interest to arthouse audiences in Cullen, Wright and Jensen’s native Australia, this ambitious and stimulating glimpse into the dark abyss of creativity deserves widespread international exposure at festivals and via receptive theatrical settings.
Indelibly disturbing as the psychopathic killer at the center of Justin Kurzel’s The Snowtown Murders back in 2011, intense Aussie thesp Daniel Henshall now turns in a similarly compelling performance as another softly spoken, dangerously charismatic individual whose relationship with a younger man may not be necessarily to the latter’s advantage. Looking and sounding remarkably like the real-life Cullen, whose whole career was marked by provocation, controversy and bad-boy shenanigans — plus consistently hazardous levels of drink and drugs — Henshall is once again a powerfully magnetic presence in a role that should definitely pave the way to higher-profile international opportunities.
He shares the spotlight here with Toby Wallace, who takes the more passive, trickier role of Jensen. A fresh-faced and precocious professional journalist who was only 19 when he first entered Cullen’s seductive orbit, Jensen was near-instantly recruited as the Boswell to the considerably older man’s Johnson. The reporter would spend nearly four years interviewing, and hanging out with, his subject, supposedly for a biography to be published by reputable firm Thames & Hudson.
Jensen soon learns, however, that nothing Cullen says or does is to be taken at face value, and also that this particular “assignment” carries considerable personal risk. Jensen is “accidentally” shot by firearms nut Cullen and — in an offhand moment that’s as breathtaking as anything in the Mission: Impossible franchise — casually thrown from a speeding motorbike. But he remains doggedly loyal to both his project and collaborator/employer. Self-effacing, bookish and boyish, Jensen is helplessly and perhaps masochistically fascinated by the satanic appeal of a complex and volatile individual capable of extreme obnoxiousness one minute, irresistible charm the next.
Whereas the book is very much Jensen’s perspective on Cullen — his fame, problematic family life, sexuality, brushes with the law and steady decline into physical oblivion — the film sees the writer profitably widen his scope. He creates what is in effect a double portrait by also shining the spotlight on himself, often with unflattering results. Somewhat detached, elliptical and even chilly in its depiction of uninhibited (mis)behavior, Acute Misfortune pays appropriately ambitious tribute to Cullen’s wayward talent — in 2000 he won the Archibald Prize, one of Australia’s leading art awards, for his portrait of actor David Wenham in his persona as the psychopathic protagonist of Rowan Woods’ superb The Boys (1998).
Shooting in the old-school 4:3 ratio in collaboration with cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking for an arch and claustrophobic feel, director Wright delivers a fragmented, sometimes hallucinatory journey into the painful psychological spaces occupied by his two main characters. Stylistic flourishes abound, but these are no mere gratuitous window dressing, but rather the fruit of what is already a controlled and mature cinematic sensibility. Jagged editing by the relatively experienced Luca Cappelli is the picture’s consistent trump card, keeping the audience off-balance throughout as we trace Cullen’s fateful mission down the rocky road of excess.
Production companies: Arenafilm, Blackheath Film, Plot Media
Cast: Daniel Henshall, Toby Wallace, Genevieve Lemon, Max Cullen, Gillian Jones
Director: Thomas M. Wright
Screenwriters: Erik Jensen, Thomas M. Wright (based on Jensen’s book)
Producers: Jamie Houge, Virginia Kay, Liz Kearney, Thomas M. Wright
Executive producer: Robert Connolly
Cinematographers: Stefan Duscio, Germain McMicking
Production designer: Leah Popple
Costume designer: Sophie Fletcher
Editor: Luca Cappelli
Composer: Evelyn Ida Morris
Casting director: Jane Norris
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Sales: Maze Film Sales, Sydney
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